Let the Games Begin
by Fred Nickols

Go to previous version with reviews

TopThe issue of distance learning might heat up a bit—and soon. I recently received in the mail a brochure offering an MBA via distance learning from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. My interest aroused, I looked into Heriot-Watt in particular and online MBA degrees in general. As the old-time comedian Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody’s getting into the act." So what? What distinguishes Heriot-Watt's program from the others? Heriot-Watt's distance learning MBA program has several interesting aspects and some downright unusual ones.  Its accreditation, price, on-campus requirements, course content, homework and quiz formats, thesis requirements, assessments, and admissions procedures are all worthy of a closer look and a comparison with those of other universities.


Heriot-Watt dates back to 1821 when it was founded as an engineering school. The school has held a Royal Charter (the equivalent of U.S. accreditation) for more than 30 years. The Edinburgh Business School within Heriot-Watt awards the distance learning MBA degree. Most of the business schools in the United Kingdom seem to rely on their Royal Charter plus additional accreditation from Association of Masters of Business Administration (AMBA), whose members are MBA graduates, or from the Association of Business Schools (ABS), an organization whose membership consists of 100 major providers of business and management education in the United Kingdom. There are no official reciprocity agreements between the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) in the United States and ABS or AMBA in the United Kingdom. [Note:  AACSB has retained its acronym identification but changed its name to The International Association for Management Education.]  Recognition of a school’s accreditation and standing is negotiated between the schools involved and on a school-by-school basis. Only one school in the United Kingdom (Warwick University) has applied for and received accreditation from the United States’ AACSB. Heriot-Watt holds the accreditation standard for its region and it is potentially valid for United States institutions.

Price and Value

The Heriot-Watt MBA curriculum entails seven required courses and two electives. Each course is priced at $935, making the cost of the MBA just under $8,500, which puts Heriot-Watt at the low end of the market. At the other end of the price scale, the MBA via distance learning at Duke University’s Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) program, awarded by the Fuqua School of Business, weighs in at a hefty $82,500. An MBA from the London School of Business is $43,000 (US). In this range, too, are MBAs from Purdue University ($37,500) and Auburn University ($35,000). Slightly less costly are the distance learning MBAs offered by Ohio University ($29,000), Syracuse University ($28,566), the University of Notre Dame ($23,690) and the University of Phoenix ($21,675). Colorado State compares favorably with Heriot-Watt at $8,400-$12,000. Warwick University, the only British school accredited by AACSB, carries a price tag of $20,800 for its distance learning MBA. 

The Economist Intelligence Unit, part of The Economist organization, lists Heriot-Watt's distance MBA program as one of the best distance learning programs in the world. It is also reportedly the largest distance learning MBA program in world with more than 8,000 students in 120 countries (4,000 in the United States and Canada), as well as 10,000 students on campus in Edinburgh. Many United States and international corporations endorse the Heriot-Watt MBA program by reimbursing their employees for studying through it, including AT&T, Disney, DuPont, FedEx, Ford GE, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, Pitney-Bowes and United Parcel Service. The ultimate accreditation, that of employers, has been granted.

On-Campus Time

Although students who complete the MBA distance learning program are welcome to receive their degrees during the regular on-campus graduation ceremony, no on-campus time is required for the Heriot-Watt program. This provides an added advantage to the Heriot-Watt distance learning program: students may complete the degree in as little as one or as many as seven years. The on-campus requirements of other programs range from a few days at the beginning of a semester (true for several) to Ohio University’s requirement of three one-week residencies plus three weekend residencies and Syracuse’s requirement for three two-week summer sessions.

Course Content

The courses included in Heriot-Watt’s distance learning program are the same courses as those offered on campus and use the same materials.

Required courses: Electives:





·Organizational Behavior

·Quantitative Methods

·Strategic Planning

·Decision Making Techniques

·Financial Risk Management I

·Financial Risk Management II

·Government, Industry & Privatization

·Human Resource Management



No homework or quizzes are required. However, each course provides several practice tests that students can use to gauge their mastery of the material. All other colleges and universities require some mix of homework assignments, graded papers, case studies, quizzes and examinations.


No thesis is required at Heriot-Watt, nor are other essays or assignments required.


Assessment of student performance and the awarding of the Heriot-Watt MBA are contingent on one thing and one thing only: passing the end-of-course examinations for all nine courses. These secure, three-hour examinations are administered twice a year (in June and December) on hundreds of campuses around the world. There are 100 such campuses in Canada and the United States. Certificates for each course are awarded upon passing the exam and, once all nine certificates have been earned, the MBA is awarded.


Heriot-Watt does not require the GMAT or even an undergraduate degree. Heriot-Watt seems to have adopted a "proof of the puddin’ is in the eatin’" attitude here. Heriot-Watt believes that GMAT filters out students owing to a fixed, on-campus limited capacity. No such limit exists for online study; therefore, no filtering via GMAT is required. Matriculation in the program is immediate if the applicant possesses an undergraduate degree; if not, matriculation is contingent upon satisfactorily completing any two of the seven required MBA courses. Unlike London’s Open University, where admission is restricted to citizens of the countries making up the European Union (EU), anyone, anywhere can be admitted to Heriot-Watt’s program.


The Heriot-Watt faculty appears competent and credible; they teach in the on-campus program as well. The director of Heriot-Watt's business school is Keith Lumsden, who taught at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business for 13 years. Other faculty members taught previously at schools such as Heriot-Watt, Drake, Tulane, University of Arkansas, University of Minnesota, University of Bath, University of Buckingham, University of Edinburgh and University of Strathclyde. Instruction, however, is not a critical part of the distance learning MBA experience; the Heriot-Watt MBA program relies on self-directed study. The teacher's presence manifests itself mainly in selecting the course materials and constructing the examinations, not in student interactions, nor in making and grading homework assignments, papers and quizzes.


Lots of hyperbole comes to mind: "This changes everything." "Let the games begin." And, "Ave Caesar, morituri te salutamus." Conversely, it would be easy to dismiss the Heriot-Watt offering as little more than a correspondence course program or to ignore it as a cheap offering at the low end, presenting little threat to stronger, more established (and higher priced) offerings. However, as Clayton Christensen (1995, 1997) of Harvard has pointed out on more than one occasion, established organizations are often displaced by companies that use what he calls "disruptive technologies" to enter a market at the low end. They enter with a product of admittedly lower quality but at a much lower price and then work their way upward, eventually dominating the segment or market.

Arguably, the Heriot-Watt program is doing more than just entering the market with a low-priced product. Consider the following quick summary of unique features below:

No undergraduate degree required
No GMAT test score required
No thesis required
No homework assignments
No time on campus required
Completion in as little as one year or as many as seven
Nine courses in all (two electives)
Priced at about $8,000

Not one of the other distance learning MBA programs comes close to matching Heriot-Watt's on this array of attractive features. Even the reliance on examinations as the sole basis of grades might prove attractive. After all, is this not an instance of outcome-based assessment?

In a recent Los Angeles Times article (Sept 19, 1999), Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, warns that institutions of higher education risk marginalization if they fail to respond to the four dramatic forces driving distance learning:

A Premium on Intellectual Capital. This simultaneously fosters a shortened shelf-life of knowledge and drives a demand for continuing education.

Changing Demographics. The traditional college student (age 18-22) now represents only one out of five students. The new majority of non-traditional students seeks education to enhance established salaries and careers, not simply to gain entry to the job market. They want practical skills and high quality.

Pervasiveness of Technology. It is possible to provide education via distance learning to 40% of American households via PCs and modems.

Cost. The average cost of college tuition plus room and board rose by more than 300% between 1980 and 1997. Fewer than 5% of U.S. families can afford the full cost of a private college education. Technology and distance learning may lower dramatically the costs of education.

In closing, let me make it clear that I have no affiliation with or interest in Heriot-Watt or its programs, faculty or destiny. My attempt here is simply to draw attention to the issues that Heriot-Watt addresses with its distance learning MBA program and to remind the readers that these issues pose significant challenges to established institutions and practices.


Bower, J. and Christensen, C. (January-February 1995).  Disruptive technologies: catching the wave.  Harvard Business Review. pp. 43-53

Christensen, C.  (1997).   The Innovator's Dilemma.  Harvard Business School Publishing: Cambridge.

Levine, A. (1999, September 19).  Higher education isn't prepared for the global classroom.  Los Angeles Times.  Commentary.